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Did Heidegger Say the Holocaust Was Jewish “Self-Annihilation”?

[1]2,306 words

The Charge

One of the most sensational charges against Heidegger is that he claimed that the Holocaust was the “self-annihilation” (Selbstvernichtung) of the Jews. This charge was first made by Italian philosophy professor Donatella di Cesare in an article in Corriere Della Sere on February 9, 2015: “Heidegger: ‘Jews Self-Destructed’: New Black Notebooks Reveal Philosopher’s Shocking Take on Shoah [2].”[1] [3] Di Cesare writes:

The Shoah was an act of self-destruction by the Jews. This is the view that emerges from the new volume of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, edited by Peter Trawny and soon to be published by Klostermann (Gesamtausgabe 97, Anmerkungen I–V). The 560 pages of new material date from the crucial 1942–1948 period . . . The argument is that the Jews destroyed themselves and no fingers should be pointed at anyone except the Jews themselves.

Di Cesare expanded upon this thesis in her book Heidegger, die Juden, die Shoah, which was published in October of 2015 and translated into English in 2018 as Heidegger and the Jews: The Black Notebooks:[2] [4]

In keeping with his metaphysical anti-Semitism, Heidegger interpreted the extermination of the Jews as a “self-annihilation”: the Jews would annihilate themselves. Agents of modernity, complicit with metaphysics, the Jews followed the destiny of technology . . . For Heidegger, no one but the Jews themselves could be called to account. The blame for their extermination fell onto them . . . (pp. 201–202)


Donatella di Cesare

Di Cesare’s argument is complete hogwash. As an interpretation, it is baseless. First, Heidegger is not referring to the Holocaust. Second, Heidegger writes about the “self-annihilation” of modernity, not the Jews. Third, the question of blame never enters into Heidegger’s discussion. Beyond that, di Cesare formulates her charges in the most sensationalistic possible terms, which smells of malice and cynicism. She is both smearing Heidegger and promoting her book and career.[3] [6]

Let’s look at the original Heidegger quote before we take apart her interpretation.

The Text

The passage in question consists of three connected paragraphs from a notebook dated circa 1942 to 1945. The first paragraph reads:

The anti-Christian [der Anti-christ], like every “anti,” must stem from the same essential ground as that against which it is “anti”—that is, the same essential ground as “the Christian” [“der Christ”]. The Christian stems from Jewry [Judenschaft]. In the timeframe of the Christian West, that is, of metaphysics, Judaism is the principle of destruction. What is destructive in the reversal of the completion of metaphysics—i.e., of Hegel’s metaphysics by Marx. Spirit and culture become the superstructure of “life”—i.e., of economics, i.e., of organization—i.e., of the biological—i.e. of the “people.”[4] [7]

This passage is clearly from a notebook. Heidegger jumps from topic to topic without clear links, perhaps because he has not fully worked out his ideas.

First of all, Heidegger states that all opposition to Christianity somehow secretly affirms Christianity. But is this necessarily the case? Or is it true only of certain forms of opposition, such as liberal secular humanism, that reject Christian religious tenets but affirm and intensify Christian values?

Heidegger then jumps to the topic of Jewry. Christianity is in some sense an offshoot of Jewry, but it is unclear what connection this has to the previous point about anti-Christianity. Is Christian opposition to Jewry futile because Christianity stems from Jewry? Perhaps, but Heidegger’s initial point is about anti-Christianity, not anti-Semitism. Beyond that, Heidegger did not identify as a Christian, so if he is speaking about Christian anti-Semitism, it cannot be identified with his thinking.

Heidegger then makes a particularly pregnant statement: “In the timeframe of the Christian West, that is, of metaphysics, Judaism is the principle of destruction.” What does Heidegger mean by equating metaphysics and the timeframe of the Christian West? Christianity and Greek metaphysics became fused in late antiquity, but Western metaphysics emerged in ancient Greece, centuries before the birth of Christ.

In what sense is Judaism the principle of destruction within the age of metaphysics and the Christian West? This view seems to echo the anti-Semitic trope formulated by Theodor Mommsen that Jews are the “ferment of cosmopolitanism and national decomposition” in non-Jewish societies.[5] [8] But it would make more sense and be more consistent with Heidegger’s other statements about Jews in the Black Notebooks if he spoke of Jews as a people rather than Judaism as a religion. (See my “Heidegger and the Jewish Question [9].”)

Judaism is present in Christianity at the beginning, but the principle of destruction manifests itself near the end of Christianity and metaphysics, i.e., in the emergence of modernity, i.e., the age of rootlessness and unbounded technological nihilism.

This age is “Jewish” insofar as Jews, being a mercantile diaspora people, are well-adapted to flourish in it. Thus Jews become unusually powerful in modernity and help drive it to its completion. This reading coheres with Heidegger’s other statements about Jews. (See my “Heidegger and the Jewish Question [9].”)

Heidegger’s next remark seems to be an illustration of this principle: Marx’s inversion of Hegel’s metaphysics, transforming the realm of spirit and culture into a superstructure upon an economic basis. Marx, of course, was Jewish. But then Heidegger equates Marxist materialism with non-Jewish philosophies that treat spirit and culture as manifestations of more basic material forces. The first material force is “life,” which Heidegger himself puts in quotes. This is an allusion to Nietzsche and the tradition of “life philosophy” (Lebensphilosophie) he inspired. Then Heidegger cites two more materialist principles: “economics” and “organization.” The first clearly refers back to Marxism, perhaps the second as well. (I am not sure what else it might refer to). Then Heidegger cites the “biological” and the “people” (Volk), the latter term in quotes as well. These are references to National Socialism, which leans heavily on both biological race and the concept of the people. Thus Heidegger is equating Marxism, Nietzscheanism, and National Socialism.

What do Marxism, Nietzscheanism, and National Socialism have in common? Their modernist materialism, their reduction of the cultural and spiritual to a material base reality. What they don’t have in common is Jewishness.

Thus, on Heidegger’s premises, it is superficial to identify Judaism or Jewishness as the “principle of destruction.” Jews are certainly prominent exponents of modernist materialism. But so are Americans, Russians . . . and Germans. Thus Jews are only part of the problem. Thus when Germans identify the flaws of modernity with the Jews, they are overlooking the same flaws in themselves. (When a part stands for the whole, it is a literary trope called synecdoche. In deductive logic, when one attributes the characteristic of a part to the whole of which it is a part, it is called the fallacy of composition. In inductive logic, falsely attributing the traits of one member of a group to the whole group is called hasty generalization.)

At this point, Heidegger has laid the groundwork for his shocking conclusion:

When what is “Jewish” in the metaphysical sense [the National Socialists] combats what is Jewish [namely actual Jews], the high point of self-annihilation in history has been attained—supposing that the “Jewish” has everywhere completely seized mastery, so that even the fight against “the Jewish,” and it above all, becomes subject to it.

First, Heidegger’s premise, that “the ‘Jewish’ has everywhere seized mastery” is the assertion that modernity has everywhere seized mastery, including in Germany. But the Germans simply call whatever they don’t like about modernity “Jewish.” By putting “Jewish” in scare quotes, Heidegger distances himself from that usage. Heidegger’s point is that National Socialism itself turns out to be “Jewish” in that sense of the word.

Thus if both National Socialists and the Jews—both the Axis and the Allies—are “Jewish” in the sense of modernist, then the Second World War is “the high point of self-annihilation in history.” It was modernity’s war against itself, modernity’s self-annihilation.

Heidegger is not saying that Jews in the factual sense annihilated themselves in World War Two. The “self” that is engaged in annihilation here is not Jewry but modernity. The confusion arises because the National Socialists superficially identified modernity with the Jews, not realizing that by that standard they themselves were somehow Jewish.

Heidegger had hoped that National Socialism was an alternative to modernity not just another form of it. Does this mean that resistance to modernity, like resistance to Christianity, is futile? Or is it only futile on modern grounds? Heidegger clearly holds the latter view. He believed that a genuine alternative to modernity is possible. This possibility is hinted at in the final paragraph:

On this basis one must assess what it means, for thinking that enters the concealed, inceptive essence of the history of the Occident, to meditate on the first inception among the Greeks, which remained outside Judaism and thus outside Christianity.

If one remains entirely on the plane of modern nihilism, it is futile to resist one form of nihilism with another. In the final paragraph, however, Heidegger’s discourse shifts to another plane. This shift is signaled by his reference to the “thinking that enters the concealed, inceptive essence of the history of the Occident,” the realm from which modernity emerged—and from which a genuine alternative to modernity might emerge.

How can such thinking contribute to a new beginning? Heidegger’s only suggestion here is to “meditate on the first inception among the Greeks, which remained outside Judaism and thus outside Christianity.” We can free ourselves from the Judeo-Christian cultural legacy by reconnecting with the other origin of the Western civilization, namely pagan Greece.

But this is not the whole story for Heidegger, because the ancient Greeks are also the source of the metaphysical tradition that gives rise to modern nihilism. Thus, we must attune ourselves specifically to the pre-Socratic, pre-metaphysical Greeks like Heraclitus.

Who Said Anything About the Holocaust?

The first problem with di Cesare’s argument is that Heidegger is not talking about the Holocaust. After the Second World War, it is quite natural to think of the Holocaust when reading a National Socialist writing about Jews and annihilation. But the timing is wrong. The passage in question is from circa 1942 to 1945, probably closer to 1942.

Heidegger, like most Germans, was probably simply unaware of mass killings of Jews in the East. The Holocaust was simply not a “thing” for most Germans until after the war. Thus when Heidegger talks about “annihilation,” he is referring to something else. Actually, he is referring to something much bigger and much worse than the Holocaust. He is referring to the entire Second World War.

Who is “Self-Annihilating”?

Heidegger is clearly not saying that the Jews are annihilating themselves. The annihilation is the Second World War. The parties are the Axis and the Allies. Both parties are modernist. Therefore, the Second World War is modernity’s self-annihilation.

This is consistent with Heidegger’s other usages of “self-annihilation” in the Black Notebooks. For instance, in a comment from 1941, Heidegger argues that the Soviet assault on Western civilization is essentially the West’s self-annihilation, because Marxism and Soviet technology are both Western: “Insofar as technology and communism assault the West out of the East, in truth the West is assaulting the West in an uncanny self-annihilation of its own powers and intentions.”[6] [10] He also claims that the American onslaught against Europe is essentially Europe’s self-destruction, since Americans are Europeans.[7] [11]

Then why even mention the Jews? Because the National Socialists identified everything they disliked about modernity with Jews. They also identified the Allies with Jews. Heidegger claims, however, that the National Socialists were in fact just as modernist as their enemies, which on National Socialist terms made them just as “Jewish.” For a National Socialist, surely the worst possible insult is to be accused of acting like a Jew. This is precisely what Heidegger is doing. Indeed, as I have argued in “Heidegger and the Jewish Question [9],” about half of Heidegger’s remarks on Jews have the same pattern:

Heidegger places Jews, Judaism, and Jewish thought on the same level as Christianity, the Greeks, and German National Socialists. In all these cases, Heidegger rejects the Jewish as well as the non-Jewish terms as equally problematic. In the passages where Heidegger places Jews and National Socialists on the same plane, his primary target is National Socialists, for whom the cruelest barb is to be compared to Jews. But Heidegger’s problem with the Jews is not that they are Jews, but that their ideas are as false and superficial as their National Socialist counterparts.

The Blame Game

Finally, if Heidegger is not talking about the Holocaust and not claiming that the Jews annihilated themselves, then he obviously can’t be blaming the Holocaust on the Jews.

Heidegger’s claim that the Second World War was modernity’s self-annihilation is consistent with holding individuals responsible for their actions. In the war, Germans killed many Jews, both combatants and civilians. More broadly, Axis soldiers killed many Allied soldiers and civilians, just as Allied soldiers killed many Axis soldiers and civilians. Heidegger did not deny that.

However, the whole thrust of Heidegger’s later philosophy is “anti-humanist,” meaning that behind grand historical trends—like the emergence of the modernity that enthralls us all—there’s no subjectivity, no agency, nobody to blame.

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[1] [14] Donatella di Cesare, “Heidegger: ‘Jews Self-Destructed’: New Black Notebooks Reveal Philosopher’s Shocking Take on Shoah,” trans. Giles Watson, Corriere Della Sera, February 9, 2015, https://www.corriere.it/english/15_febbraio_09/heidegger-jews-self-destructed-47cd3930-b03b-11e4-8615-d0fd07eabd28.shtml [2]

[2] [15] Donatella di Cesare, Heidegger, die Juden, die Shoah (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 2015); Heidegger and the Jews: The Black Notebooks, trans. Murtha Baca (Cambridge: Polity, 2018).

[3] [16] Robert Bernasconi has essentially the same interpretation of Heidegger’s text: “Heidegger’s appropriation of the term self-annihilation in the context of the Holocaust is unconscionable.” He does not, however, cite di Cesare, so he may have simply made the same mistake. See Robert Bernasconi, “Another Eisenmenger? On the Alleged Originality of Heidegger’s Antisemitism” in Heidegger’s Black Notebooks: Responses to Anti-Semitism, ed. Andrew J. Mitchell and Peter Trawny (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), p. 178.

Peter Trawny also offers essentially the same reading of the “self-annihilation” passage without citing di Cesare in his Heidegger: A Critical Introduction, trans. Rodrigo Therezo (Cambridge: Polity, 2019), pp. 81–82.

[4] [17] Martin Heidegger, Gesamtausgabe, vol. 97, Anmerkungen I–V (Schwartze Hefte 1942 –1948), ed. Peter Trawny (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 2015), p. 20. Translated by Richard Polt in “References to Jews and Judaism in Martin Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, 1938–1948,” https://www.academia.edu/11943010/References_to_Jews_and_Judaism_in_Martin_Heidegger_s_Black_Notebooks_1938-1948 [18]

[5] [19] Theodor Mommsen, History of Rome, vol. 4 (New York: Scribner, 1871), p. 643. Cited in Trawny, p. 165, n82.

[6] [20] Martin Heidegger, Ponderings XII – XV: Black Notebooks 1939–1941, trans. Richard Rojcewicz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017), p. 219

[7] [21] Gesamtausgabe 97, p. 230.